"I freely admit that the best of my fun I owe to horse and hound"
(Aleen Isabel Cust)
Early female doctors are given a lot of coverage in lists of "firsts", but when I went in search of the first woman veterinarian there was little information available. Almost expecting her to be an American, I discovered that she was, in fact, English – or more correctly, Anglo-Irish.
Aleen Isabel Cust was born in 1868 in County Tipperary, one of six children of Sir Leopold Cust. When her father died in 1878, she came under the guardianship of the very wealthy Widdrington family of Newton Hall, Northumberland **.
The Widdringtons recognised that Aleen was a spirited young woman with a mind of her own and they encouraged her ambitions. She originally trained as a nurse in London, but having loved animals since her childhood was determined to become a veterinary surgeon instead. (Her grandmother, Mary Cust, a lady in waiting to the mother of Queen Victoria, was a cat fancier and wrote the book, The Cat: its History and Diseases (1856).
Aleen’s family tried to stop her doing something so radical as it was not considered a job suitable for a woman, but having a modest private income at her disposal, in 1894 she moved to Edinburgh, changed her surname to Custance and was admitted into the New Veterinary College, founded in 1873.
Aleen was a top student, always first in her classes and she won a gold medal for zoology. When she prepared for her first exams, however, she received a blow as the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons (RCVS) decided that a woman couldn’t sit their examinations. The College was divided on the issue and the profession at large became involved in the debate. After much wrangling, she was able to complete her studies but she could not officially call herself a veterinary surgeon. Her professor gave her a high recommendation and suggested she take up an assistant’s post with William Augustine Byrne, a new veterinary graduate setting up a practice in Roscommon, Ireland.
The following paragraph is taken from the Oxford Dictionary of Biography (ODB) and gives some startling information about Aleen’s private life as well:
"He [Byrne] was an engaging personality, handsome, witty, and popular both socially and professionally. The arrival of Miss Cust as his assistant caused consternation and scandalised the priesthood, but her competence and poise won her respect. There is reason to believe that they lived as man and wife and that she had two daughters, born in Scotland, who were later adopted. Aleen never married, though in 1904 she was engaged to Bertram Widdrington, son of her guardian."
Did Aleen really have two illegitimate daughters by Byrne? It seems astonishing, even a bit far-fetched, given the Irish clergy were already scandalised by a woman doing the work she did - what would they think of her having babies out of wedlock as well? Maybe it was some rumour put about to further discredit her, as I am unable to find anything else that substantiates it, but I must defer to the ODB as a respected and authoritative publication and I doubt they would have accepted such a statement without fairly strong proof. What happened to end her engagement to Bertram Widdrington is also unknown, and he married another woman in 1912.
A biography on Aleen Cust by Connie E. Ford (interesting in her own right) was published in 1990, but copies are rare, so I am unable to check if all this information is contained in it and if anyone reading this can tell me more, do please contact me.
After Byrne died, Aleen took over his practice and the ODB further says:
She made her visits riding side-saddle on an Arab stallion, or driving one of her several horses in a gig. When the day's work was done she would dress formally for dinner, and be waited on by her servants.
With the outbreak of World War I, Aleen left Ireland and drove herself to France where she was based in Abbeville and volunteered for three years looking after the countless thousands of horses in transit to and from the Western Front. In 1918, she enlisted in Queen Mary's Auxiliary Corps where she worked as a bacteriologist.
Finally, after the passing of the Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act of 1919, which forbade the exclusion of women from the professions, Aleen Cust could no longer be refused membership of the RCVS and, after a brief examination, she was finally awarded her membership twenty-two years after she had completed her training.
Aleen returned to Ireland, but the situation there was no longer welcoming for people of her Anglo-Irish background and so she retired to Lyndhurst, Hampshire. She travelled much during her later years and while visiting friends in Jamaica in 1937 she died suddenly and is buried there. In her Will she specified that no motorised transport should be used at her funeral, only horses.
The first woman vet in Australia was Isabelle Bruce Reid and it seems the first American was a woman with the curious name of Mignon Nicholson. She graduated in 1903 from McKillip Veterinary College in Chicago, Illinois, but there is very little to be found on her on-line so this is subject to verification. (There is no Wikipedia entry on her and if you try Googling that name, you can end up with a brand of piano!) There is also this story on Elinor McGrath.
Apart from the ODB entry, more about Aleen can been read in International Women in Science: A Biographical Dictionary to 1950 and here.
A general article here (American) on other early women vets.
** The Widdrington family are a fascinating family. The Hall and its contents were auctioned off in 2009. Read about them in this article from The Newcastle Journal.